September 24, 2017

Resilience to Extreme Weather and Climate Change: Can This Be a Bipartisan Effort?

The news the past several months has been full of disasters associated with extreme weather and wildfires.  Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.  Flooding in Houston, power outages in Puerto Rico.  Wildfires in the Pacific Northwest.

The media and some politicians often suggest that global warming is a major explanation for many of these contemporary disasters.  As noted in previous blogs, I believe that scientific evidence and reports by authoritative groups (e.g., the IPCC) suggest a much more nuanced conclusion about global warming's role in recent weather-related disasters.

Specifically, global warming has played only a minor role in enhancing some of the recent extreme weather events, and that the current problems are mainly the result of poor infrastructure, inadequate planning, and the lack of resilience.  This is particularly true for the Pacific Northwest, downwind of the slowly changing eastern Pacific Ocean.

Our society is not resilient to past and current weather extremes, ones driven overwhelmingly by natural variability and not by human-caused global warming.  So instead of the partisan fighting about the impacts of global warming, which has resulted in little progress, why not work together as a State and a nation to make ourselves more resilient to the current climate and extreme weather?

 Furthermore, putting the blame on global warming has allowed politicians, major institutions, and others to shuffle off their responsibilities in allowing inadequate infrastructure and planning regarding to current extreme weather. Easy to point the finger at global warming and not their failings.

Lack of Resilience is Obvious

Outside of the Pacific Northwest.

Houston has had a number of floods during the past few years and it is clear that lack of planning for heavy rain and abysmal infrastructure has been the primary cause of the problems.

New Orleans flooded during Katrina for many reasons, including inadequate, poorly constructed, and poorly maintained levees, destruction of protecting wetlands, and subsidence from the use of underground aquifers and drilling operations.

In New York City during Hurricane Sandy, subways flooded due to inadequate watertight doors, power failed due to poor placement of electrical infrastructure, and homes located in inappropriate coastal locations were flooded.

In Puerto Rico last week, massive power outages have occurred due to an irresponsibly neglected power system.

In California, the Oroville Dam spillway failed after a heavy rainfall event.  Poor construction and lack of maintenance were the key issues.

There is a virtually an  unlimited number of examples of this:  lack of planning and poor infrastructure has made millions of people vulnerable to current extreme weather.

The Pacific Northwest

 Our region has done relatively little to deal with susceptibility to the effects of weather extremes.

Take wildfires and smoke.    There has been several major fires during the past several years and a number of media outlets/politicians have been pointing the finger at climate change.

Wrong direction.   Temperatures in our region have only warmed up about 1 F during the past several decades and precipitation/snowpack has remained steady over the period (little trend).

But our forests east of the Cascade crest are in terrible condition and prone to burn.  We have suppressed fires for over a half-century allowing unhealthy conditions to develop, with lots of debris on the forest floor and excessive density of timber. Invasive cheatgrass (grassoline) has replace much of the less fire-prone natural bunch grass.

Too many people have been allowed to build homes and buildings in and near forests, endangering them and those sent to protect their homes during wildfires.

Our current State leadership has been irresponsible in this area, investing far less in restoring forest health than other states, and even opposing US Forest Service attempts at expanding proscribed burns.   Instead, they have pushed an ineffective agenda regarding global warming.  And little has been done to discourage building at the urban/forest interface.

Heavy rain, flooding and landslides.   Our region can get heavy precipitation during the winter from atmospheric river events, some with 10-20 inches over a few days.  The result is flooding near rivers and slope failures .  In the future, global warming will enhance the most extreme global rivers by 30-40% (I have done research on this with Mike Warner, of the US Army Corps of Engineers).

Our region is not prepared for even current rain events.   Recently, a very modest rain period caused the failure of King County's West Point treatment plant, resulting in a catastrophic ejection of raw sewage into Puget Sound.

The State and local government agencies allow folks to build in vulnerable locations, such as the homes in Oso, WA that were wiped out a few years ago.

 Too many people live near rivers in highly vulnerable locations.  For example, there are a number of communities living next to rivers, including in bends of rivers (see an example for Big Bend, WA near the Skykomish River, as an example).  Disasters waiting to happen.

The State must identify all vulnerable areas to flooding and landslides, prevent future construction at such sites, and begin the process of buying out vulnerable properties.  This is will not be cheap, but the process needs to start immediately.

Water Resources

During the past fifty years there has been no downward trend in precipitation or snowpack over the Northwest, although there have been some poor years in one or the other (such as the warm temperatures and poor snowpack of 2015).

 Models indicate that global warming will slightly enhance annual precipitation, but significantly reduce April 1 Cascade snowpack by the middle-end of the century.   The Columbia River will be less affected by the warming since many of its sources are from higher terrain.

During the 2015 warm summer, water resources were stretched for the Yakima Valley and for some cities near the Olympics.  There were substantial agricultural losses.  To deal with these issues, more efficient use of water in agriculture (e.g, more drip irrigation, less water-intensive crops, reduce loss/waste) is needed as well as enhanced reservoir capacity, something this being discussed/planned as part of the Yakima Valley Integrated Water Management  Plan.  A statewide plan for dealing with occasional dry years is needed immediately, with extensive planning and infrastructure development for the second half of the century when temperatures will be warmer (more evaporation) and snowpack will decline.

A Key Resource for Resilience and Adaptation:  Knowing the Past and Future

To take the necessary steps to make our region more resilient to the current climate and to prepare for future changes, society needs information on the nature of historical extremes and our best projections of what will occur as the planet warms.   Unfortunately, our state is not investing sufficiently in these areas.

The Office of the Washington State Climatologist (who is Nick Bond) is acutely underfunded and can not collect and make available comprehensive and up-to-date climate information.  The State has not invested in regional climate modeling, an effort that several of us have been trying to spin up.   A modest State investment in documenting past climate information and producing improved projections of future climate, will greatly enhance regional resilience efforts.

Emergency Assistance

Finally, resilience also represents the ability of the nation and world to effectively and quickly move in supplies and assistance to locations where disasters occur.  How effective we are in this area is being tested in Puerto Rico, whose infrastructure was decimated by Hurricane Maria.  The U.S. needs to have a large rapid response infrastructure to bring food, water, and assistance to those facing environmental disasters, and the ability to provide extended assistance with housing and other needs. There has been suggestions that our region is woefully unprepared for the next major earthquake or for an historical record flood.

Many of the above suggestions should be of interest to folks on both sides of the aisle.  Don't believe in global warming?   You can still support making our society resilient to current extreme weather.  You can support getting better climate information.   A middle ground is possible...


  1. Cliff, thank you for this much - needed analysis of our lacking in critical infrastructure preparedness. The near - disaster in CA last winter of a damn almost failing is just one more example of politicos putting taxpayer monies towards inane projects (i.e. the new high speed rail line to nowhere), instead of projects that are most in need of repair. I'd like to see the Federal Government get out of offering flood insurance in areas that were prior floodplains and on the coasts where hurricanes are at the very least a semi - annual event. If you're a builder and you can't get a private insurance company to offer you a policy, you can't build there unless you're prepared to lose it all next time around.

  2. Excellent post. Human mis-planning is one of the biggest contribution to catastrophes where nature (aka physics) does extreme things, whether there's a negligible or large, low or high probability contribution by the physical effects of human-caused climate change.

  3. Thank you for your thoughtful post. What you write ties into the article in Sunday's The Seattle Times: "State's quake prep cuts corners". We seem to be suffering from poor leadership at all levels of government. Officials have adopted a head-in-the-sand approach, unable to deliver any bad news that might threaten their ability to be re-elected or appointed. What good is holding office if you don't do the job required?

  4. Thanks for the blog Cliff. When I worked at WSDOT we called what you're espousing the "no regrets" solution. In other words, the project made the system more resilient to large events regardless of climate change. It is a way to get things done and build bridges (no pun intended). When we were doing our vulnerability assessments we would ask the local folks, "What keeps you up at night?" and then we would apply to climate science to that to see if it was projected to get worse or better (yes that happens). Regardless, we were often able to come up with solutions that made the system more resilient today and made it more likely to be ready for the changing climate. Of course there seem to always be more projects than money to implement them. ;-(

  5. Cliff,
    I agree with all you say about forest management or the lack thereof that has contributed to extreme fire events. But I say only “contributed”. In California CALFIRE has fought fires in the past years in both erroneously managed fuels alongside highly managed pre-settlement tracks of forest and rangelands (Prescribed Fire, brush and tree thinning etc.) When a fire enters these fuel managed tracks of land they are burning with as much intensity as their mismanaged areas. CALFIRE does not start fire season earlier because there are more trees or more people living in the urban interface. This has been a way of incident response since the 70’s (it’s a fairly new game of structure protection in other parts of the Northwest). They start early because fire units routinely experience temperature’s in the 90’s by the first weeks of April. Nor do they (CALFIRE) end Fire Season later because the “lack” of prescribed burns. They keep crews on because fire units routinely fight fires during Thanksgiving and beyond now.

    Fuel Moistures (at least in California) in the Past 20 years have continued an upward trend on how fast they come down (to wildfire threshold conditions) after a winter, no matter how much snow or rain the area gets. And Fuel Moistures have, in the past 20 years, have stayed in wildfire thresholds for longer seasonal durations. Fires are now burning and spitting out pyrocumulus clouds in post fire areas that are only 5-10 years old (previous wildfire). The only reason these are not turning into 1910 events every year is the sheer amount of money and recourses we are throwing at these beasts. 747 for crying out loud! Then again this is only making it worse.

  6. Japan might not be the best example thanks to Fukushima, but it does represent a country that understands resilience. It is worth cribbing a bit from their playbook. Okinawa builds with reinforced concrete since they are vulnerable to typhoons. They also understand drainage much better than we 'Mericans do. A typhoon hits and they just close their shutters. Japan also is a bit more civic minded than we are.

    We on the other hand replace stupid and irresponsible with more stupid and irresponsible. After that, developers exponentially increase the construction of more stupid and irresponsible with the blessing of stupid and irresponsible zoning as well as building codes. Once that building or property sells...the buyer is on their own. Sucks to be them for buying an OSB McMansion in a flood plain. Perhaps there could have been a way to tastefully elevate that McMansion on piers? Yes it might cost more but compared to it beign destroyed with all its it really an arguable expense? Or better yet, build it somewhere else.

    Every disaster natural event there are lessons screaming to be learned. However, insurance companies as well as government just replace what is lost in an "exactly how it was before" manner. Yes, people get sentimental about their stuff, but it comes to a point where perhaps it is time to mitigate the outcomes of those events that cause that stuff to be wrecked in the first place.

    Ultimately it comes down to any other cost constructed decision. Akin to safety at a corporation, it is sometimes cheaper to just pay the fines or rebuild it all back in an irresponsible manner than achieve anything that resembles full compliance with sensible code. Case in point: It was easier for Ford to go to court, pay legal fees, fines and settle suits for the deaths and injuries than redesign the gas tank on the Pinto. It was up to the markets to decide it was time for a better car after that.

    So, we as a country don't practice resilience, unless there is a way to make money off it or proactive resilience at least turns out to be a better deal than just saying screw it.

  7. Thank you for this post Cliff. This is so much more important of a discussion than most of the talk about climate change.
    For those who are interested a detailed analysis of these issues regarding global food supply, here is a very good report-

  8. Cliff, you really hit the nail on the head when you mention "resilience". In the emergency services field where I work, there is a constant struggle between building emergency services that are efficient and those that have resilience. Many politicians think that emergency services should be run like a business, very lean, with just enough resources to handle routine, day to day emergencies. This may be cost effective, but people need to realize that when we have a major windstorm, snowstorm, earthquake or other natural disaster, the speedy 5 minute 911 response they are accustomed to isn't going to happen because our system is designed for efficiency, not resilience. We need critical infrastructure to be resilient and able to handle contingencies beyond the day to day, even though it doesn't come cheap.

  9. What can the common person and family do to protect themselves from these extreme climate events? Our government certainly is not capable to handle such complicated issues that require forsight. Our government's ability to solve problems was on display when they came up with an incomplete budget solution surrounding education.

  10. America won't pay for it. Time to party down or rockets red glare, bombs bursting in air. Take your pick. Good topic, Cliff - keep it alive.


  11. Cliff writes: "The State must identify all vulnerable areas to flooding and landslides, prevent future construction at such sites, and begin the process of buying out vulnerable properties. This is will not be cheap, but the process needs to start immediately."

    It is a shame that we are too unimaginative to come up with solutions other than government. Should the people of the US pay taxes to subsidize land speculators, developers, and unwise home-buyers who gobble up huge tracts of tropical beach property, build expensive homes, and live in 'paradise'? Rather than subsidize them with tax dollars, let private, un-subsidized insurance companies assess the real risks and make the consumers pay accordingly.

    Similarly, let insurance companies in Washington do the research and decide at what rate and whether to insure homes foolishly built below an unstable slope. Or next to poorly maintained forest, or perched on an eroding cliff mass'ed of unstable rock and sand.

    What are the advantages of the private sector option? Better value, less collusion between wealthy developers and government, more efficiency, competition and choice, more agility and speed characteristic of free markets.

  12. This information is all based off of flawed computer programs, yet somehow this is still accepted as science. Antibiotic resistance is far more frightening than slightly warmer or colder temperatures.

  13. The Federal response to an unprecedented three major hurricanes striking US states and territories has been very good, and is being rightly praised.
    What needs to be front and center is that the current administration has slashed all the readiness and training work that has made an efficient response possible- funding for the flood mapping program was recently REMOVED.

  14. " why not work together as a State and a nation to make ourselves more resilient to the current climate and extreme weather?"

    You should be able to tell from the disinterest in planning for ongoing climate (look at Houston's lack of zoning, lack of dealing with drainage for predictable events, willful blindness to what kind of events are predictable; also New Orleans for instance is identically blind except for zoning) how we will ever do anything for climate change. People want what they want when and where they want it, and developers are ready to give it to them and are now in the White House to make sure they get it.

    We need to end federal flood insurance. That would let developers and commercial insurance companies figure out what it should really cost to live on the coast (any coast), and with (or without) what infrastructure.

  15. Is there a possibility that our weather events have been manipulated ? This link describes how the summer that we experienced in the Pacific NW was part of a larger scheme of weather manipulation.

    The website to investigate for more info is

    I tried fact checking some of these, but evidence is sketchy so far. Maybe this can be a future topic.

  16. You continually state that this or that event is not evidence of climate change. Yet you believe that human caused climate change is real. Perhaps you could tell us what evidence there is for climate change in weather events.Or are you maintaining that no weather events are evidence of climate change.
    I'm 75 Cliff. Will I ever see a weather event that is evidence of climate change.

  17. The other factor is that the cost of mitigating GHG emissions is so high and the resulting potential changes to global warming are so small that it much more cost effective to adapt with resiliency projects than to try to mitigate.

  18. CNY roger - You do realize don't you that to cease mitigation attempts and to focus on adaptation will by definition commit your children to a life of building Trump walls to keep out the millions of climate refugees, which by definition means they must be willing, a the very best scenario, to watch contentedly from the right side of the wall as those millions are held back by violent suppression then ultimately doomed.

    Then their kids, if they still have the stomach for such a thing, will be doomed to reorganizing the entire continent around our own internal migrants escaping rising sea levels.

    This is all assuming a very rosy scenario, one where those less fortunate have refrained from sending nukes at us in retribution for our base and crass immorality. It assumes that our centuries of globalized economic integration can be successfully transitioned to national isolationism without huge social and technological destabilization.

    The adapters forget ( perhaps purposely) the most important and infuriating thing about all this. As Al Gore accurately put it. "Climate change is a moral problem" and by failing to mitigate, your kids will become by necessity morally vacuous individuals

  19. and here comes Cousin Brucey to yet again harangue any and all doubters to confess their sins or else face his high moral indignation. Either do exactly what he says or else the world will end shortly - this is not any way to convince anyone of the merits of your argument, it's akin to shouting at clouds. This attitude is emblematic of the problems that noted climatologists Dr. Richard Lindzen and Dr. Judith Curry know only too well; when the effects of this kind of insane behavior leads to actual science becoming manipulated to serve the control freaks who wish to rule over a democratic populace who only wish to exercise their free will.

    What's the difference between you and the Soviet Politboro, Bruce?

    1. Eric,
      How about less name calling and more science. This isn't Facebook. You may or may not be right. But please communicate more professionally.

  20. We live in a stochastic world with a lot of day to day, year to year and decade to decade variability. This variability is called noise. But if we look at long term trends in global climate we begin to see the signal: increasing ocean heat content, increasing atmospheric heat content, changes in the distribution of global wet & dry zones, the melting of glaciers, arctic sea ice and permafrost, an unpecedents rate of increase in CO2 in the atmosphere, increasing release of methane from melting permafrost and warming continental slope sea beds. The physics and chemistry of these events all correspond to natural laws. The inescapable conclusion is that we're in the midst of major climate change. Some scientists have concluded that around 2050 we will reach Climate Departure when these trends become unstoppable baring a return to a global economy of the 1930's. And we know that's not going to happen.

    Mitigation and adaptation to a rapidly changing changing climate aren't happening because many people can only see their future in terms of years, many others have a vested interest in the status quo because they don't care about the future or are paid not to care. After several devastating hurricane floodings is New Orleans repairing their dikes, pumps and escape routes? Is New York City moving people out of the coastal plains that flooded during Sandy? incidentally, is the Seattle area preparing for the inevitable major earthquake that could happen tomorrow? We do nothing because each individual can't imagine that they will be personally affected by a major calamity, or can't afford to make changes, nor are they informed (or want to be informed) about causes and effects of natural phenomena that are happening all around them. You can adapt to or prepare for something you don't believe in.

  21. Please show more professional courtesy and better scientific evidence on your comments. This is not Facebook. You may or may not be correct, but you can talk professionally.

  22. If you bowl, each line is the weather and your average is the climate. If you golf, each score is the weather and your handicap is the climate. Ditto baseball; each at-bat is the weather and you BA is the climate.

    So it seems clear to me that the sum of our weather events yields the climate, and that climate cannot 'cause' weather. If asked if this storm or that event was caused by climate change, I would say no, you have it backwards. If such storms and events continue, then the climate shall have changed.

  23. The difference between me and the Soviet Politboro?

    Clearly Eric, you certainly don't know. The last thing I want to do is to force you to "confess" anything. I offered an opinion on the essential problem we face, which clearly and unambiguously is a moral one, considering these facts:

    1) We are causing global warming, as described by a highly trustworthy global consensus of expertise. It is of a dubious morality to reject this expertise in favour of incompetent opinion.

    2) This knowledge has serious hazardous implications for global humanity. Again, to reject this skilled knowledge in favour of incompetence is not just a dubious morality, it is an amorality.

    3) We - that is, our generation - are in a position to at least lessen the negative effects, yet we are not directly at risk of the negative effects. Future generations are not in a position to lessen the effects yet they will experience the risks in an exponentially growing manner....... the risks we are responsible for generating. If that isn't a moral problem of the highest order. I don't know what is!

    Now you may not like having your nose rubbed in these facts, but then typically no small child does. I honestly don't care if you like it. I only want to know if you can refute it.

  24. Based on NASA, US Ntl Park Service, et al, the current global warming is mainly caused by human activity. Thus, the climate's unnatural. The wildfire smoke impacts this summer in the Pacific NW were severe. Part of the problem was the USFS was letting wilderness fires burn, causing unhealthy smoke to impact millions of people! Such infernos also caused enormous GHG emissions, and burned a plethora of completely healthy CO2-eating trees in the process. We need a war on global warming! Let's provide a huge budget to Boeing, or its competitors, to design and build a multitude of large drones to promptly extinguish wildfires. Such fires are no longer natural, and they threaten the ecosystems, our health and the planet!


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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